In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Democracy’s FutureBetween Africa’s Extremes
  • Michael Chege (bio)

In the brief passages devoted to sub-Saharan Africa in his book on democracy’s “third wave,” Samuel P. Huntington is largely pessimistic about the prospects of liberal constitutionalism in the region. 1 Yet, despite the well-publicized (and self-inflicted) political calamities that have befallen the continent, developments over the past four years have proved to be more varied than Huntington’s remarks would have led one to expect. Since 1990, most of sub-Saharan Africa’s 45 states have seen attempts at transition from authoritarianism to democracy. The fate of these efforts runs the gamut from outright disaster to relative success, with stalemate being a frequent outcome (as in Nigeria, Zaire, Togo, Kenya, and Cameroon). The vast range of results was dramatized unforgettably in the spring of 1994, when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first president of a democratic South Africa, an improbable historic event celebrated by democrats the world over, even as ghastly massacres sowed death across Rwanda and began a nightmarish parade of horrors. Those two events represent the two poles of possibility in the face of the same fundamental challenge. For although the political and historical gap that separates South Africa and Rwanda is greater than the 1,500 miles that lie between them, both states were essentially grappling with what has turned out to be the most intractable political problem facing the region: that of crafting representative public institutions on a social foundation of deep-seated ethnic rivalries and economic inequalities.

The key to the outcome in both these cases—and in many others as [End Page 44] well—was the quality of political leadership, whether in government or opposition, and its capacity to steer thitherto hostile constituencies toward mutual accommodation. It is becoming increasingly evident that South Africa’s fortunate transition was the culmination of drawn-out, behind-the-scenes negotiations between African nationalist leaders who knew the art of driving a hard bargain but also when to compromise, and liberal whites who sought to dismantle the besieged apartheid system for the long-term good of the country. In stark contrast, the Rwandan tragedy came about when the militarily hard-pressed Hutu ethnocracy abjured negotiations and stubbornly sought to preserve its hegemony by means of a Nazi-style “final solution” designed to extirpate the country’s Tutsi population as well as Hutu prodemocracy activists.

Broadly speaking, the paths followed by most African nations can be traced to strategies adopted by authoritarian incumbents and the reactions to them displayed by specific citizens and opposition groups. Some incumbents chose to compromise with democratic or potentially democratic challengers, while others opted instead to seek the annihilation or incapacitation of opposition movements. In every case, the new prodemocracy groups and external actors have played critical secondary roles in catalyzing or forestalling positive political change.

It is time to recognize this emerging variability in the process of political and constitutional change in Africa—distinguishing the successes from the cases that have fed the too broadly drawn doomsday scenario broadcast by the world news media—and to identify the actors behind the various outcomes. Above all, if we hope to advance the prospects of democratic governance in Africa, we must begin to deepen our understanding of the political forces at play in each country. For with every passing year, those who study the continent are faced with ever more painful reminders of just how difficult it will be to plant and nurture functioning democratic institutions in the volatile social terrain of sub-Saharan Africa. The optimism that prevailed in 1990 has been steadily tempered by monumental problems of government and civil society, some of which hark back to the very founding of the modern state as we know it.

The Elusiveness of Consensus

The institutionalization of free and popular government requires mutual acceptance of democratic principles, an active middle class, and committed democratic leaders, all working over time in a comparatively orderly and prosperous state. Minimal consensus on the need to preserve the integrity of the state, the inviolability of personal liberties, equality before the law, and dedication to the rule of law is a prerequisite to progress...

Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 44-51
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.